Perspectives from America
In December 2015, I joined some Legislative Colleagues from the northeast U.S. states, plus Quebec and Nova Scotia, for discussions during a session of the Council of State Governments, Eastern Region Conference. Regardless of the ideological gridlock in the U.S. Congress (i.e. the House of Representatives plus the Senate in Washington), the U.S. states remain sensibly governed by level-headed people trying to do the best they can for their residents, and in circumstances often much more difficult than the Canadian provinces face.
The eye-openers are the individual states’ reports. The U.S. northeast faces an explosion of addiction problems: to opioids (i.e. prescription drugs) and to heroin in recent years. Basic literacy is a goal sliding further away from attainability due to school funding issues. Beyond the Great Lakes basin, the states – especially in the south and southwest USA – face a major issue summed up as “looking for water.” Pennsylvania is in its fifth month of a budget stalemate in its capital of Harrisburg.
Every single legislator underlined how basic infrastructure: roads, bridges, water, sewers and the like are teetering from neglect. Some used the expression “falling apart.” And in electricity, where Ontario has already taken a lot of the financial pain of updating electricity generation and transmission infrastructure, and ceasing to generate electricity by burning coal, the U.S. states have barely started. And yet, many states still have power rates higher than Ontario!
In the U.S. northeast, which means Ontario’s neighbourhood in North America, our nearby states: Maine, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and others still depend on burning coal to generate electricity.
Click the image for a larger view. Burning coal boils water to raise steam to turn a turbine and generate electricity
Burning coal boils water, which raises steam. The pressurized steam spins a turbine which generates electricity by spinning a tightly-wound core of copper wire around an iron core inside a powerful magnet, thus generating electricity. The coal serves as a heat source to boil water. Splitting atoms from Candu nuclear reactors do the same thing, and with no emissions at all. A thermal (coal or nuclear) generation plant is basically a gigantic kettle that boils water to produce steam.
Coal mining itself is increasingly done by ‘strip-mining’ techniques, which means cutting down entire forests, removing all the soil covering the coal deposit, losing all the animal life in the region for decades, and cutting away the coal to ship to power plants to burn. The prehistoric carbon in the coal, trapped for tens of millions of years, is released into the atmosphere when the coal burns. Once the coal deposit is mined out, the soil can be replaced and the region’s tree cover restored. Think in terms of a century or longer before the coal region once again resembles a forest, even with the best remediation science in effect. See some pictures of what strip mining does to a landscape.
Ontario no longers burns any coal to produce power
In 2006, Mississauga’s Lakeview Generation Station, four coal-burning units producing 2,400 megawatts of electricity was demolished. Ceasing to burn coal to produce electricity in Ontario remains North America’s single largest and most successful climate change success story. It is the equivalent of taking the emissions of more than 7½ million cars off the road. From an average of 55 smog-alert days per year a decade ago, the Greater Toronto Area now averages zero to one day annually today.
Only New York gets less than half its electricity from burning coal, and not much less than half. Ontario no longer burns any coal at all to generate electricity. In states like Ohio and West Virginia, nearly all of their electricity comes from burning coal. Moving away from coal will be wickedly expensive and take decades in the United States. Ontario has largely paid that bill, and turned off its last coal-fired generation station. The USA has barely started in most jurisdiction, and not started at all in many others. Ontario today knows that in our province, not burning coal has taken about $4.5 billion in health care costs away. It is a permanent annual saving.
Coal plants, like the former Lakeview Generating Station in Mississauga, discharge toxic nitrogen and sulphur oxides into the air, plus ash, mercury, cadmium, lead, carbon monoxide and arsenic.
Ontario has upgraded or newly-built about 5,000 kilometres of transmission wires. The U.S. states are far behind in renewing power transmission normally built in the two decades after World War II. As an example, the 2010 completion of the Bruce-to-Milton transmission line was a major reason (along with regular maintenance and tree-pruning by Enersource) that Mississauga largely escaped the power outages that hit Toronto during the 2013 ice storm. Click for more information about Ontario’s electricity system.
As the USA renews its power generation, it will be looking to buy a lot of replacement power. Ontario, with a surplus of generating capacity, will be in a position to sell that power to the USA as it refurbishes its nuclear reactors and turns off its coal plants. Electricity prices in many U.S. states, and nearly all growing and industrialized states, are already higher than Ontario’s power prices. The “upward pressure” on U.S. electricity prices as they pay bills Ontario has already paid, will mean faster-rising power prices south of the border than in Ontario.
Ontario’s electricity is now 99.5 percent free of greenhouse gases. Only gas plants, which burn the same natural gas that heats your home, still generate carbon dioxide in producing electricity in Ontario.
Put another way, Ontario has bought tomorrow’s electricity infrastructure, at yesterday’s prices, financed at near-zero interest rates. Our U.S. cousins need to buy today’s electricity infrastructure, at tomorrow’s prices, and finance it with interest rates that have nowhere to go but up.
Some will say that electricity prices in some areas of North America are lower than Ontario. That’s true, sort of…
If you live in areas with a low growth rate, a population not rapidly-expanding and hydroelectric generating stations (i.e. dams) built a generation or two ago (thus being now fully paid-for), then you will have lower electricity prices than Ontario. This means, for all practical purposes: Manitoba and Quebec (to the left and right of Ontario); British Columbia and Washington State on the other end of the continent. As well, in regions of North America where economic and population growth is low, power prices reflect the lack of need to build new generation and transmission. The biggest driver of electricity costs is the capital needed to build new generation stations and transmission lines. Once built and paid for, the electricity system operates at what one utility executive described as “the cost of fuel and people.”
This means if you want to live or conduct business near a growing population and industrial base, you will pay higher power prices than if you wish to be in an area that is not growing, or is not served by hydro dams built long ago. In brief, Ontario’s power prices are already lower than in major North American and European population centres, and will rise more slowly than in our neighbouring U.S. states, because we’ve already paid major capital expansion and renewal bills that their governments, utilities and citizens have kept putting off.
A big advantage of being what is called in business a “first-mover” in environmentally-sustainable electricity has been Ontario’s 30,000-job renewable energy industry, whose world-class products drive both clean power in Ontario, and export revenue abroad. Wind power in particular gives the Independent Electricity System Operator in Ontario the ability to fine-tune Ontario’s electricity supply to the minute-by-minute demand simply by changing the pitch of the blades of wind turbines operating at that moment.